An acquaintance—whose self-accounts have appeared in several books, radio stories, prominent magazines and web publications—published a short story in a “non-fiction” anthology. I was familiar with the underlying events and asked her about it, since, even aside from unacknowledged name-changes, it plainly had invented and exaggerated elements, and a twisted chronology meant to fit a story arc. “Of course it does. It’s creative non-fiction,” she responded in exasperation, introducing me to a new definition of “non-fiction” that I hadn’t previously been aware of.
So the James Frey scandal (or a smaller one involving the Times’ Modern Love section) doesn’t surprise me in the slightest; I’ve just come to assume that anything published under the memoir label in the twenty-first century is the modern-day equivalent of a Philip Roth novel that isn’t well-written enough to be successfully marketed as fiction.
The question is what will a court do when confronted with the inevitable free-riding class action, claiming that the publisher has committed consumer fraud, and demanding the right for every book owner to get a full refund and punitive damages (and, of course, a taste for the attorneys who took the entrepreneurial risk of typing up a summary of The Smoking Gun story and filing it in court), before settling for 50-cent coupons, a donation of remaindered books to a “Books for Addicts” program, and a multi-million-dollar attorney fee. Will there be a ruling that “non-fiction” memoirs that aren’t require labelling? If so, what are the First Amendment implications for other non-fiction books? A ruling that doesn’t provide a clear swath of protection for publishers could essentially abolish memoirs or first-person reporting, because a ruling that establishes any sort of rule calling Frey’s book consumer fraud (or even just potentially actionable consumer fraud) could encourage other attempts to sue other successful memoir-publishers for less egregious exaggerations. (This problem earlier arose with the Beardstown Ladies (Nov. 16, 1999), and the California Court of Appeal was far from sympathetic to the First Amendment issues.)
Random House appears to be attempting to pre-empt litigation by offering refunds to anyone who asks, which will surely be a smaller percentage of customers than a hired plaintiffs’ damages expert would testify to.
Prawfsblawg asks about Frey’s liability to the publisher, which seems to miss the point: what’s the publisher’s theory of damages? “You sold us a book that made us a lot of money”?
Also of interest to Overlawyered readers is the bullying letter sent by Frey’s lawyer to The Smoking Gun to try to keep them from publishing their findings. We may have our own story of bullying letters to tell shortly.